Sunday, December 16, 2007

A social climber, our Joe - A review of A Room At The Top by John Braine

It’s fifty years since A Room At The Top first appeared. Against a backdrop of post-war Britain, a period when people really did believe that a new future, a different kind of society was just around the corner, Joe Lampton, born January 1921, aspired to social and economic elevation. Though competent and already promoted as a local government officer in a grubby northern English town, with spare time interests in amateur dramatics, cigarettes and beer, even he himself rated his prospects of success as very poor. But Joe’s other passion was the ladies.

Two in particular caught his eye. Alice Aisgarth was married, older than him, and had a local reputation for being a bit “forward”. Basically she wanted love and passion to light up her dull, unhappy life with excitement. Susan Brown was a different prospect entirely, being nineteen, virginal and daughter of a rich businessman. If Joe Lampton could never work his way to wealth, he might just be able to marry it. His problems arose out of Susan’s desire to remain pure during their courtship, a position that meant Joe had to continue seeing Alice to satisfy his needs. Further complications arose when Susan relented and fell immediately pregnant. Well Joe achieved his goal. He and Susan married and he attained what he had sought all along, a meal ticket for life. He was not entirely without conscience, however. So when the rejected Alice, who deeply loved him, is killed in a car crash after a drunken night trying to drown her sorrows, Joe Lampton does suffer some remorse. But eventually, like many social climbers, he achieves his heights by trampling on others.

What remains enduringly intriguing about Room At The Top is its portrayal of British society’s obsession with social class. Joe perceives his best chance of social elevation is to marry money. And, in 2007, I re-read this novel in a week when a United Kingdom report declared that current day social class differences were widening, whilst opportunities for social mobility are actually decreasing. So John Braine’s novel is also a social document. The book is very much of its own time. It reminds us, for instance, that in the 1950s everyone smoked – and smoked a lot. Men drank pints in the pub – some of which did not even admit women. Homosexuality was not only not tolerated, it was illegal, though remained visible.

Some of the recorded individual aspiration now seems nothing less than quaint. Alice Aisgarth, for instance, declares that she would like to sleep with Joe. “Truly sleep,” she qualifies, “in a big bed with a feather mattress and brass rails and a porcelain chamber pot underneath it.” In the 1950s, most north of England houses did not have bathrooms and the potties were usually enamel.

But it is in the area of social class that A Room At The Top is bitingly and enduringly apt. Joe Lampton believes he lacks the capacity to succeed, lacks the necessary background, the poise, the breeding. He sees himself as essentially vulgar and possesses no talents which might compensate for this drawback. His rival for Susan Brown’s affections, however, is one John Wales. He is studying for a science degree at Cambridge, and thus acquiring not only the knowledge which will ensure that he will become the managing director of the family firm, but will also endow the polish of manner, the habit of command, the calm superiority of bearing, the attributes of a gentleman. 

Fifty years on, we might change an odd word, and the family firm might now be multi-national, but the spirit of contemporary Britain’s class system is arguably the same. And so despite the aspiration for and perceived attainment of social change in post-war Britain, Room At The Top, juxtaposed with recent evidence, reminds us that very little, if anything, has changed – except for the cigarettes and the chamber pots, of course. Oh, and we might now also prefer lager.

View this book on amazon ROOM AT THE TOP

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